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The Divine (Situational) Comedy

"The Good Place is the most unexpectedly profound show on television. NBC’s afterlife sitcom, which just concluded its second season, stars Kristen Bell as an impostor in paradise and Ted Danson as her supernatural overseer. It begins by skewering shallowly sentimental ideas of heaven and then transitions to asking (sincerely!) how a bad person can become good. You know the show is something special when the Kierkegaard jokes start and don’t let up.

Bell plays a selfish woman named Eleanor Shellstrop who’s let into “The Good Place” by mistake and realizes she has to learn ethics to blend in. Danson’s unearthly architect Michael introduces Eleanor to her unearned eternal reward, a bourgeois bohemian paradise of manicured lawns and frozen yogurt stores on every corner. The ostensible moral basis of this afterlife is an absurd Pelagian system: If you “Remember Sister’s Birthday” you gain 15.02 points, but to “Ruin an Opera with Boorish Behavior” loses you 90.90 points.

Those who come out ahead in this reckoning are rewarded with houses in the eternal suburb and assigned a singular “soulmate”—just as Hallmark piety would expect. Eleanor’s supposed soulmate is ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a sweet nerd who agrees to keep Eleanor’s secret and to teach her how actually to become the good person she’s impersonating. Their under-the-radar ethics classes become entangled with the shenanigans of another impostor, a Jacksonville Jaguars fan posing as a Buddhist monk, Jason (Manny Jacinto), and his supercilious celebutante soulmate Tahani (Jameela Jamil). Rounding out the cast is the neighborhood’s Siri-like, programmed, all-purpose assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden). The show is a wacky ensemble comedy even as it’s an earnest exploration of moral development.

Showrunner Michael Schur (a co-creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has blogged about the ethical struggles he’s faced in his life, some of which have their own sitcom-like quality. Example: In 2005, Schur’s fiancée rear-ended a Saab, leaving it with an all-but-invisible scratch on its bumper. The Saab’s driver wanted to file an insurance claim for the scratch. To dissuade him from filing a claim—which might have raised insurance rates for Schur’s fiancée—Schur promised to donate to a Hurricane Katrina relief fund, then started roping in his friends to donate as well, as a way of shaming the unnamed “Saab guy.” But Schur began to have moral qualms about his actions, and spent hours on the phone with Harvard, Yale, and Stanford ethics professors to talk through the situation.

Someone inclined to concoct a plot like this—and then to noodle nervously over its morality—has just the sort of mind well suited to putting TV characters into sticky situations. Although Schur says he consulted ethics professors in 2005, he never mentions seeking religious guidance. Nevertheless, in The Good Place he’s made a show that explores and then explodes “moralistic therapeutic deism,” the mushy, post-Christian pseudo-religion of America’s youth diagnosed by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Moralistic therapeutic deism posits that God wants you to be happy but otherwise stays out of the way and that nice people go to heaven when they die. The Good Place starts off as a Technicolor Divine Comedy for the therapeutic deist universe. The twists of the show suggest Schur is well aware of the extent to which this worldview is lame and saccharine. (Ye who enter here: Major spoilers follow.)"

The cast of "The Good Place"

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